Housing’s Missing Middle: A Debate in Arlington, Va., Magnifies the Challenge

'This whole discussion has gotten very dramatic ... It’s kind of fun to watch.'

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Living amid an inordinate number of government suits, PhDs and Amazon employees, residents of Virginia’s Arlington County have long boasted of the Arlington Way. Equal parts civic sloganeering and backslapping, the concept celebrates how careful debate and decision-making have shaped the county into a dynamic urban village.

A charged, ongoing debate about zoning reform that would permit small, multistory, multi-unit buildings in single-family neighborhoods has stretched that civic comity to its breaking point. It’s reinforcing fault lines between owners and renters that mirror local battles across the nation over housing affordability and political power. 

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The county board’s Missing Middle study, which informed a proposal for zoning reform in 2021, has metastasized in recent months into a blitz of yard signs, influence campaigns on the NextDoor App, and a series of passionate meetings featuring limits on speakers due to the overwhelming demand to testify. Opponents flash signs reading “​​the Arlington Way has gone astray,” and county officials get into “no, you grow up”-level exchanges with constituents. Assistant clerk to the county board David R. Barrera said he’s spent at least three hours a day, every workday, for the last six months processing and sharing resident feedback with the board. 

“This whole discussion has gotten very dramatic,” said Jenny Schuetz, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert in housing policy. “And that’s very out of character because Arlington is nice, well-bred middle class. It’s kind of fun to watch.”

Missing middle housing, broadly defined, covers an array of mid-rise housing options, mostly smaller apartment complexes of a few stories, often in vernacular styles such as Chicago’s greystones or the dingbats of Los Angeles. Due to a variety of economic and regulatory factors — including higher development costs and, most importantly, the proliferation of zoning regulations that broadly favor broad single-family home-only neighborhoods — these housing types and the gentle density they bring to urban neighborhoods have become more and more rare nationwide. 

Housing proponents have been pushing the Arlington County board to support regulations that would allow more missing middle production in the significant part of the county zoned single-family-only, a category that covers roughly half of Arlington’s 26 square miles (which is even more significant given that the county also contains a university, an international airport and the Pentagon). In such a densely developed area, infill and zoning reform represent the only ways to increase the housing supply. “They need to be expanding the capacity for housing allowed under zoning in every way they possibly can,” said Schuetz. “This should be on the table, and bigger upzoning should be on the table.”

On Jan. 25, after numerous meetings, hours of discussion, and testimony from hundreds of residents, county board members basically voted to vote, clearing the way to approve missing middle zoning in March. The vote proceeded only after the majority stripped the proposed plan of the option for eight-unit buildings.

While the vote was a win for those who want to see the proposal pass, the actual impact won’t be as big a deal as the impassioned, occasionally intellectual debate suggests, especially in the short term. When the March 18 vote takes place, it’ll likely contain both a cap on the number of annual missing middle projects that can be approved, at 58 projects or less, as well as a clause to encourage geographic distribution of such projects. There’s also a chance that further debate may tack on a parking minimum rule that makes it more financially challenging to build. 

In addition, those who actually do the building aren’t going to be huge commercial developers or national real estate firms. The NAIOP of Virginia, a local real estate trade group, didn’t have a comment, since it’s not really involved in residential projects of this scale, and many larger local developers declined to comment. Analysts suggest the only builders who will get new business will be small, custom homebuilders. 

“It’s a limited opportunity in my opinion,” said Eric Maribojoc, executive director at the Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship at George Mason University. “Infill residential development is a very small subset of the industry.”

In many ways, the small number of potential homes at stake strikes at key arguments on both sides of the classic YIMBY/NIMBY divide. There won’t be enough new housing produced to significantly alter a neighborhood’s fabric, change traffic patterns or strain infrastructure, while at the same time there won’t be enough produced to make a dent in the high cost of housing (Arlington’s average home sale price was $809,000 last year, and the median two-bedroom rent is around $2,400 a month), or to meaningfully impact homeownership rates and improve equity and diversity in the short term. 

But it’s a philosophical fight that neither side wants to abandon, since the proposal has the potential over time to reshape the contours of the community’s housing. Should rich homeowners get to sit in their rapidly appreciating homes, their neighborhoods preserved in amber, with such a dire need for new housing? Is this proposed shift moving too fast and disregarding strategic planning?

Historically, Arlington has shown foresight and vision with its land-use plans. Efforts in the 1970s to approve what would later be termed transit-oriented development around Metro stations has dramatically expanded the county’s urban character and rental population; currently thousands of high-rise units sit in the pipeline. 

But, despite significant housing production, rents and home prices have continued to rise. The DC metro region needs to produce 32,000 units a year for the foreseeable future to meet demand, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. And there’s still a need for more housing and ownership opportunities; missing middle may not initially move the needle much in either case, say proponents, but every bit helps, and aids in addressing equity concerns.

Part of the reason the pro-housing voices have been so loud during this debate is because there’s a much larger constituency for more housing, said Maribojoc, a result of a growing number of apartments along the Metro corridor. The severe lack of affordable housing has mobilized neighborhood groups around the issue, such as during recent debates over accessory dwelling units, and it has exacerbated the county’s north-south, owner-renter split along Arlington Boulevard.

“We are reaching a critical mass that the people who live in these large buildings and renters and newer residents are starting to influence and become a larger voting bloc,” said apartment-dweller, historian and local YIMBY Jane Fiegen Green. “That’s starting to take the ‘small-c’ conservative homeowner block a little off guard.”

The Missing Middle Housing Study documented the connection between zoning and a lack of diversity, noting the relationship “between this legacy of exclusion and a lack of housing opportunities for a diverse community.” At a Jan. 21 board meeting, Julius Spain Sr., a former president of the local NAACP and a candidate for a county board seat, said the missing middle proposal is “a start in the right direction” to “unwind historically discriminatory and exclusionary zoning.”

“This is effectively that version 2.0 of Arlington’s growth, what Arlington will look like in another 50 years,” said Adam Theo, director of communications for YIMBYs of Northern Virginia and former independent candidate for the county board. “It’s not so much that we don’t have the space or capacity for high-rises, it’s now we are realizing that we need a greater diversity of housing types. Arlington County has been squeezed into a situation where we have either those high-rise apartments near Metro corridors, or we have McMansions that are taking up 70 percent of Arlington’s land.”

Local homebuilder Charles Taylor of Arlington-based Classic Cottages argued at an Urban Land Institute event in December that the proposed legislation would mean streamlined building approvals and timelines, and the ability to build and sell smaller $500,000 or $600,000 homes, which would open up homeownership opportunities for more residents. 

The pushback from those opposing the missing middle efforts tends to center around the perceived impacts of the change, and the ways in which county government studies and processes have misconstrued what ultimately will take place. There’s a long history of majority homeowner groups pushing back against change, such as the ’70s-era Coalition for Optimum Growth that advocated height limits on high-density development near Metro lines, as well as modern groups such as Arlingtonians for Upzoning Transparency.

In one of its recent analyses, Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future (ASF), founded in 2019, argues the plan won’t achieve affordability, won’t increase equity and inclusivity among homeowners, and will broadly result in larger six-unit additions lacking proper infrastructure support. The county should place “livable communities ahead of accelerating population,” and focus on improving affordability, diversity and inclusion with policies that don’t require more density, the ASF says. 

Peter Rousselot, an ASF leader, 26-year Arlington resident and former lawyer and local official, said he and others have found the Missing Middle proposal lacking in strategic planning, and claimed proponents misstate its potential and dismiss its problems. He said long-range budgets are lacking, and more data and modeling should be done — in months, not years.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t have this data,” Rousselot said. “Since we’re an affluent, wealthy, tech-savvy community, we should be in the forefront of doing these things.” 

ASF supporters argue for a much slower timeline for change, with pilot projects initially concentrated in transit corridors with infrastructure to support density. Rousselot pointed out that when Missing Middle was first introduced, local officials spoke about it as a good idea that might fit specific areas, not one to be applied everywhere all at once. And, while other communities and cities, such as Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., have made similar shifts, Rousselot said the zoning changes haven’t been around long enough to be considered positive test cases, and analyses show this won’t help truly low-income homebuyers.

“This is going to generate additional housing opportunities for people in that higher-end segment of the market, but it’s going to potentially produce these negative infrastructure and other economic impacts,” he said. “So why are we twisting ourselves into a pretzel to do this?” 

Brookings’ Schuetz has said the gradual nature of the proposed changes stands in sharp contrast to the way it is portrayed. “Opponents act like the world is coming to an end, almost regardless of what is proposed,” she said. Similar comprehensive plan rewrites in nearby jurisdictions such as Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County, Md., generate “out-of-scale” backlash despite being relatively modest, Scheutz found. 

But she also raised the question of whether the push to effectively upzone all of Arlington was the best strategy for YIMBYs. Potentially, the changes could have been limited to high-density corridors, aiming for the ability to expand beyond existing Metro transit-oriented development areas and in busy corridors with limited application of eight-story apartments, dedicated bus lanes, and mixed-use commercial and housing. 

Both sides plan to continue to lobby board members ahead of the March vote. Opponents will push for more restrictions, caps on development, and parking restrictions, while proponents will seek to avoid more compromise. Opinions are split on just how much passage of Missing Middle would change similar housing and zoning debates in surrounding communities, but it’s clearly being seen by all sides as an important indication of where local politics is heading. 

Passing this would be “one more victory, one small step for housing production, one giant symbolic step for the region,” said Schuetz. She believes elected officials need to stand up for the majority, reject NIMBY demands, and learn that they can do that and survive in office.

“Maybe the symbolism matters more than the impact on this one,” she said. “Arlington is a nice test case for one political scenario. It’s a majority-renter, urban county. If you can’t make it easier to build rental housing here, where the hell can you?”